Bears

What you need to know about AFCNFC East

What you need to know about AFCNFC East

AFC East - What you need to know

New England Patriots (13-3, 513 Points For, lost in Super Bowl): While all three of Tom Brady's titles came in the first half of his career, it's the second act that's been most impressive. He was arguably a game-manager for two of his titles, but he's been the driver of this offense since 2007, grabbing two MVPs along the way (and, as it turns out, a pair of Super Bowl losses). The gravy train should continue in 2012, with well-respected OC Josh McDaniels calling the shots and Brandon Lloyd imported to run deep routes. Opponents are going to have nightmares trying to figure how they cover Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker on all passing downs. Gronkowski's 18 touchdowns don't seem repeatable, but his overunder is probably 11.5 or so. He's a safe Top 12-15 pick, and worth considering late in the first round if you miss out on your preferred targets. Stevan Ridley is the most exciting running back on the roster but be careful with the price tag; the Patriots love backfield platoons, so Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are unlikely to disappear. The Patriots haven't had a star running back since the Corey Dillon days.

New York Jets (8-8, 377 PF):  Although Mark Sanchez collected 32 total touchdowns last year, the New York organization insists on giving him the McKayla Maroney "not impressed" treatment. The club added Tim Tebow in the spring - a gigantic distraction, not to mention a rep-eater in practice - but didn't make major improvements to the skill talent. And the offensive line could be somewhat overrated as well, though the demotion of RT Wayne Turner is a step in the right direction. Santonio Holmes is desperately needed to be the team's No. 1 target, but he's a mercurial type who already has a bunch of nagging summer injuries (back, hamstring, ribs). Rookie Stephen Hill might be good enough to play immediately, so put him on your deep-sleeper list. Shonn Greene hasn't turned into a difference-making back, though the Jets will continue to feed him 15-18 touches in most weeks. At least there's no one special pushing him. If the Jets are going to be a contender in 2012, it will be on the heels of its strong defense. Any opposing No. 1 receiver is a risky play the moment he matches up with shutdown CB Darrelle Revis.  

Buffalo Bills (6-10, 372 PF): The Bills were the NFL's darlings for about one-third of 2011, but injuries to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and running back Fred Jackson wrecked the story around midseason. Everyone is healthy and happy this summer, though, and head coach Chan Gailey is having fun with his creative spread packages. Although Jackson will cede some snaps to third-year runner C.J. Spiller, he's still the fulcrum of the offense and a solid Top 40 selection for fantasy. Stevie Johnson belongs in your Top 20 at wide receiver, despite a focus drop here and there. What would really make this offense sing is a difference maker opposite Johnson; perhaps tight end Scott Chandler will finally see a bump in targets. Buffalo probably won't get into the playoffs, but this could be a very entertaining 8-8 club.

Miami Dolphins (6-10, 329 PF): Give major props to HBO for its Hard Knocks series. The network has somehow made this Dolphins team seem interesting and worth watching. Rookie Ryan Tannenhill knows Mike Sherman's offense well - they were together at Texas A&M - but the kid is also a converted wideout with limited QB experience. Good luck making that work right away. The Miami wideouts are far and away the weakest group in the AFC, and there's no one we'd bother selecting in a standard 10-team league. Maybe Davone Bess crawls his way to 65 receptions, if that matters to you. The backfield does offer two players worth knowing, however: Reggie Bush is an unsexy-but-steady pick, especially in PPR leagues given that he can catch the ball and play in spread formations. And second-year runner Daniel Thomas is a late-round lottery ticket worth considering, a post-hype pick if you will. But this team is going to struggle to score all season, and seems destined for a last-place finish in the division.

NFC East - What you need to know

New York Giants (9-7, 394 Points For, won Super Bowl): Eli Manning's pass attempts have risen for three straight years and he's coming off an 8.4 YPA, best of his career. Forget balance in New York, this is Manning's team now, a pass-first scheme. Hakeem Nicks is recovering quickly from his foot injury - don't worry about picking him in the Top 3-4 rounds - and Victor Cruz looks capable of playing outside the formation as well as he does in the slot. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw is one of the toughest backs in the league, but the laundry list of injuries will take a tax eventually. The Giants selected RB David Wilson in the first round, looking to give Bradshaw a caddy. Holdover D.J. Ware has some skills, too. Bottom line, when you look at Big Blue for fantasy purposes, focus on the passing game. Manning, Nicks and Cruz have been surprisingly affordable in most standard leagues this month.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-8, 396 PF): The Eagles looked like a sneaky breakout pick a couple of months ago, given that they won their last four games last year and don't have gigantic public pressure entering 2012. But if Michael Vick's thumb and rib injuries aren't fully healed by opening day, all bets are off. Vick only scored one rushing touchdown last year after nine the previous campaign; split the difference and you still get a nice fantasy kickback. But expecting a full season from him is a fool's errand; he's done it once in nine pro seasons. LeSean McCoy is an elite running back and worthy of a Top 3 overall pick, though his best game comes as a counter-punch to Vick (scrambling quarterbacks create wide defenses and rushing lanes). Jeremy Maclin is the receiver you want in Philly, more reliable than explosive-but-combustible DeSean Jackson.

Dallas Cowboys (8-8, 369 PF): Under most circumstances we'd be on board with Tony Romo, but everything on this offense seems to be crumbling around him. Jason Witten has a spleen injury (push him out of the Top 10 at tight end), Miles Austin's hamstrings are barking, and Dez Bryant has been a high-maintenance act his entire career. The Dallas offensive line also looks like a hot mess, which limits the buzz for second-year back DeMarco Murray. The Pokes have finally moved on from Felix Jones; he's a secondary piece at most, and isn't even guaranteed to make the team. The Cowboys fantasy defense has some sleeper value, given the presence of sack-master DeMarco Ware.

Washington Redskins (5-11, 288 PF): Ah, the poor Redskins. Even when they do something right, it turns into a rocky road. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin certainly appears ready to play right away, though Kirk Cousins is also showing a strong camp and has his supporters as well. The money invested in Griffin will secure him the gig, and it's the right choice; don't look for a Cam Newton breakout, but he can be a Top 12-15 fantasy QB right away. The receiving group is surprisingly deep, with Pierre Garcon coming over to team with experienced Santana Moss and intriguing Leonard Hankerson. Tight end Fred Davis is an intermediate threat as well. But forget the backfield, where Mike Shanahan can't be trusted (and several options loom). Roy Helu still looks like the best talent of the lot, but the club seems taken by Evan Royster right now, and Alfred Morris and Tim Hightower complicate the situation.

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing. 

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

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USA TODAY

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

The goals came in bunches for the Blackhawks in their Oct. 5 season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the Blackhawks, it was a nice memory, albeit one that seems far away given they went from scoring at will through their first two games to not being able to buy a goal for a sizeable stretch.

As for the Penguins, well, you figure their memoires of that game means they’ll be more than a little ticked off when the Blackhawks arrive on Saturday night.

“We’ve been on the wrong side of a few losses like that,” Patrick Sharp said. “You certainly remember them more than other losses.”

This is kind of/sort of about the Penguins, who in the first meeting were clearly tired not only from two Stanley Cup runs but also from their season opener/banner raising the prior night. But it’s more about the Blackhawks who, after a lengthy scoring drought, are starting to get their offense going again (15 goals in their last three games).

And while they’d like to shore up their defense – they blew a 4-1 lead vs. New Jersey and just about did it again vs. the New York Rangers – overall they’re trending in the right direction. And just as they face the team against whom they played their best game of the season.

“I’m sure [the Penguins] will be excited about playing us and making things better. They’re playing well, winning some games. For [us], we’re looking for more consistency in our game with the puck and we’re generating some offense,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I still think it has some ways to improve. That was one night, whether it was the quality of the plays we made or [what], we seemed like we had the puck a lot and did some good things with it. We haven’t seen much of that lately so I think that maybe we can recapture a little bit of that with the puck as well.”

In the past three games the Blackhawks haven’t just reignited their offense, they’ve regained their confidence. Their lines are finding some chemistry. As frustrating as their scoring drought was, they’re hoping it’s behind them.

“At some point in the season I feel like every team goes through it, either in the beginning, the middle or toward the end. You just don’t want to have it right at the end of the season,” Ryan Hartman said. “You can look at it in in a positive way. Hopefully we got that part over with and now we’re just coming in confident and hopefully we put the puck in the net.”

The Blackhawks got off to a hot goal-scoring start against the Penguins by doing the right things: shooting, pouncing on rebounds, getting traffic in front of the net and capitalizing. As they head into their 20th game of the season, the Blackhawks are finally getting back to what worked so well in Game 1.

“Things dried up for a bit but I think we have a good rotation going here with the lines; the chemistry’s starting to fill in a little bit. Some guys are stepping up. [Artem] Anisimov had a big night and Brinsky’s [Alex DeBrincat] playing great. It’s good to see those guys step up. It makes you want to be that next guy who’s called up to step up in the next game,” Patrick Kane said. “It’s good to see some goals go into the net. More important, it’s good to see some wins. But we’re playing the right way and hopefully this will trend in the right direction for us.”